What is Aikido to Me?
Katherine Pannell | 9 May 2020
When I think about this question, most of the time I just push it out of my mind and don’t really think about it. In a way, it’s kind of like asking the snow: “What is the sun to you?”. Umm…everything…because it controls its state. But also nothing. The sun doesn’t exist exclusively for the snow. It’s just there, doing its own thing. Maybe my relationship with Aikido isn’t exactly the same as the relationship between the sun and snow but I do think there are some similarities. I am who I am and in the state that I am because of Aikido. That doesn’t mean better or worse. Melted snow isn’t a lesser or greater version of solid snow. It’s just different. And that’s also not to say that it’s only Aikido that could’ve gotten me to this state. In the same way that you can melt snow without the sun. So, what is Aikido to me? Honestly, I’ll be answering that and changing my answer for my whole life. And I will never have the “right” answer because it doesn’t exist. But I can still try to explain why I think it has become so important to me.
Let me start by answering: “What is Aikido?”. Well according to the internet, it is a modern Japanese martial art that was developed so that practitioners could defend themselves while still protecting their attackers. Sounding a bit weird? Yeah, I know. Who the f**k wants to protect the person who just tried to beat the sh*t out of them? Well, I guess by definition, I do.
But let me throw you back to how it all started for me. This beginning part may be a little skewed because it was so long ago and I don’t remember the details too well. But I’m going to tell you how I remember it going down. When I was a little nugget of about five years old, my mom decided to take my oldest brother, who was around ten, to his first Aikido class. My mom had wanted us all to learn a martial art and after coming across Aikido, she had decided that this peaceful martial art was a good place to start. At the time, the Sensei of the dojo was only taking kids from 11 and up but Ben was close enough so off he went.
Anyone who has siblings knows that where one goes, they all go. My mom wasn’t about to leave the two of us, myself and my older brother Luke, at home alone. So, Luke and I were basically forced to sit and watch while we waited for Ben to finish. My mom was pretty convinced so soon after that, Luke started. Even though he was only around eight, the Sensei still allowed it. My mom also wanted me to start but the Sensei said I was too young.
I think it’s important to realise that at the time, there was very little Aikido in the country and the little that was available, was for adults. So our Sensei was one of the first, if not the first, Sensei to properly set up a dojo that actually taught kids. So with him being at the forefront of offering Aikido to children in South Africa, myself and my brothers were some of the youngest Aikido students in the country. After about a year of me watching their classes and sitting on the sidelines, I was finally allowed to start.
I’m not entirely sure why he had a change of heart and took me on at the age of six, but I think that Minegishi Sensei’s influence may have had a part to play. But anyway, at that stage I was mostly just getting comfortable with rolling around and it felt a little bit like a fun game. One of the best memories that I have from that time in my life was when it was the end of class and my mom hadn’t arrived yet; we would play on the stage that was next to the dojo. We would sacrifice someone’s belt, hold onto the one end for dear life and have one of the older kids just run and drag us all over the slippery stage floor. Needless to say, my mom was beyond pissed off about that. We would walk into class with a pristine white gi and walk out with one that was the same colour as the wooden floor. That event wasn’t even scratching the surface in terms of the mischief we would get up to as three siblings, but those are stories for another time.
I don’t remember much about the classes, but I do remember the endless patience of my Sensei. And I also clearly remember the level of respect that we all had for each other during each class. You wouldn’t expect that kind of self-control and serenity from a group of kids. Or at least I wouldn’t, but I don’t have the best opinion of kids, so maybe my thoughts on a quiet martial arts class are a bit wonky.
This carried on for years and it’s hard to say whether I loved it or not. It had become such a big part of my routine that I hardly questioned it. I didn’t take it too seriously but I did mostly pay attention and tried my best to imitate the movements. Luke stopped after a year or so but Ben and I continued. Aikido remained “just another extra-mural activity” for a VERY long time.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but I think things started to change when my parents got divorced. When you lack something in your internal world, it’s only natural that you would start seeking it externally. I think when things all felt a bit pear-shaped with my own family, the Aikido community almost became a second family. There was actually a long patch when I was seeing my Sensei more often than my dad. So to say that I viewed him as a second father isn’t that far off. And while no one could ever replace my dad, having my Sensei as a constant in my life was a huge help.
Fast forward to grade 7, when I was selected as Head Girl, and my attendance absolutely plummeted. I had compulsory workshops every weekend, school speeches etc. and I found myself struggling to make classes. I was hardly there but I still went when I could. Then I moved to a new school the next year for high school. I had every intention of being better that year with classes but the universe had a completely different idea.
The academic jump between the schools was intense. Since I felt like my academics was pretty much the only thing I had going for myself, I worked myself to the bone trying to keep my marks up. I was constantly working and studying and again, I had little time for Aikido. Just when I started to get a hold of the academics and found more time, a series of things happened. My grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the geyser burst and fell through the ceiling, our dog died, things from my parents’ divorce resurfaced and money was really tight (among a bunch of other stuff as well). Honestly, other people go through way worse things than what I went through, but I won’t lie, that was a very dark time for me. And, of course, the way life works, it got darker.
When it felt like everything was caving in, my face decided to show it externally with eczema. It swarmed my eyelids, spread under my eyes and even appeared on my neck. I permanently looked like I was crying, and to an extent, that was kind of true. It was a new school and while everyone was making friends, all I wanted to do was hide. People stared and normal conversations just weren’t an option anymore. Thankfully, I wasn’t bullied, but I definitely felt alienated. I know that a large part of that was me excluding myself out of shame, and many people were actually very kind and compassionate towards me. I had friends, but I felt extremely alone.
I wanted to train, I really did. But I could hardly look at myself in the mirror and just finding the courage to go to school felt like treading water. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. So I was absent again, for a long time.
The eczema eventually went away after about a year. It was a very long year and it was filled with many tears but like everything bad in life, it did end. It’s difficult to explain how much going back to Aikido meant to me. It felt a little bit like being able to hug your best friend after not seeing them for a year. The whole notion of “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” really sunk in. Even though I was hardly at any lessons for about two years, I would never say that I “stopped” Aikido. By that point, I couldn’t even remember my childhood before Aikido and it just seemed like such a big part of my life that it was basically impossible to stop. So other people might say that I stopped for a year or two and then came back, but to me, it never ceased to be a part of my life and I never stopped Aikido.
Those high school years were when I started to take Aikido a bit more seriously. Only a little bit though. I was still pretty nonchalant about it. Still am, if I’m honest. But as the grades got higher, I was transitioning more and more from the kid’s class to the adult’s class. It was definitely an awkward time because I was older than all the other kids in the class but I was still a kid myself, so interacting with the adults was weird. Throughout that patch and even earlier when I was still in primary school, the age gaps were always a bit strange. Ben had stopped Aikido at some point when I was in primary school and while there were some kids my age in classes, they mostly came and went. Very few stuck around long enough for me to make friends. There was also my favourite patch when the only kid that was my age was someone that I lowkey hated. I’m pretty sure we managed to dodge training together for literal months straight. Until Sensei would force us to work together because we were the only ones at the same level to practise certain techniques.
Despite any awkwardness or weird patches, the Aikido dojo was always a safe haven. I always felt welcome. I was always greeted by my Sensei with a big smile on his face. It was a home away from home. When I think about it now, I can’t actually believe how lucky I am. Some people don’t even get one home and I’ve somehow ended up with two amazing ones. Life is wild hey.
But anyway, I’ve digressed a bit. So I was in high school, moving into the adult’s class. I think at that point, there was only one other student around my age. I didn’t really speak to anyone so we didn’t talk much, and part of me was expecting him to quit like most of the other people my age had. Surprisingly, he stuck around and we actually became really good friends. Quite ironically, he’s actually friends with my Aikido enemy from back in the day. Okay so maybe “enemy” is an overstatement, but the whole situation was still kak funny.
This was also the time that sh*t really started to get fun. I had been rolling around softly for years and at some point, my Sensei decided that I was ready to get beaten the f**k up. And it was the greatest f***ing thing ever! You might be a little confused about someone being excited about getting beaten up but hear me out.
When I say beat up, I don’t really mean beat up. Remember the whole peaceful martial art thing? Yeah, we don’t beat each other up in Aikido. But we practise throws that turn into breakfalls. Just imagine being flipped really hard onto your back. But when you breakfall properly, you can actually land quite gracefully and it doesn’t hurt at all.
If anyone asks what my favourite part about Aikido is, this is one of the first things that comes up. The sensation of falling through the air is pretty indescribable. I actually went skydiving and I can confidently say that being thrown really hard through the air in Aikido is like doing a series of mini-skydives. Basically, it’s amazing and nothing compares.
So throughout the rest of high school, I kept on training and kept on grading. I ended up on 1st kyu (Aikido levels work down from 6th kyu until 1st kyu and then upwards from 1st dan), which I was awarded at a seminar without doing a grading. That was pretty wild and I was really stoked because I hate gradings and avoid them at all costs.
After that, I ended up getting into the University of Cape Town so I moved to Cape Town from Johannesburg to go study. I’m not one to be very vocal about my feelings so the people at my Joburg dojo probably don’t even know this but f**k, I missed them SO much. It was actually really difficult leaving that whole support system behind. Having two homes is great until you’re saying goodbye to both of them at the same time.
However, all of my nervousness was in vain, because I struck gold again in Cape Town. The UCT Aikido Club welcomed me with open arms, and I found a new community that would support me in the same way. That’s when I started to realise that there is something special about Aikido, and other martial arts to an extent as well. It seems to curate a sense of community that extends far beyond just one dojo. This isn’t always the case, but for the most part, being a part of one Aikido community means that you are a part of them all. Wherever you go, you will be welcomed and you will always belong.
So with this new family that I had encountered in Cape Town, I stuck my head into my degree and somewhere in between, I graded to black belt. When I graded (at age 20), I was the youngest black belt in the country (or at least that’s what everyone told me. It would actually be pretty funny if some random fifteen year old was chilling at shodan in the middle of nowhere). And that lasted a total of about 2 seconds (actually roughly a year) before some kid in Port Elizabeth graded to shodan at the age of 19. I watched the grading, and damn, that guy earned every bit of that black belt. I was actually really inspired by him. However insignificant the title of youngest black belt in the country is (because all things considered, it really doesn’t mean that much and I still know nothing), I was really proud to hold it as a woman.
So here I am today. I’m 22 years old and I’ve been doing Aikido for 17 years. And I can tell you now that I am 100% going to procrastinate my 2nd dan grading as much as humanly possible. Don’t let people tell you that gradings get easier the more you do them, they don’t. For it to even be a grading, it literally has to be harder.
Thinking that I’ve been doing this thing for so long usually doesn’t phase me. But every now and then, all I can think is damn, 17 years is a long time. My Sensei has literally known me for more than 80% of my entire life. It gets you wondering, what do you have to show for it after 17 years?
That’s the best part about Aikido. Because again, the “answer” is both everything and nothing. I am still learning and I will always be a beginner. I will never have something to show for it.
But when I think back on my life, I can distinctly (and sometimes not so distinctly) see where Aikido has affected my reactions in life. So to answer “What is Aikido to Me?”, it’s me tripping over a wall when I was eight and landing in a perfect roll instead of face-planting into the concrete. It’s me offering food to the men holding us at gunpoint in our home. It’s me grabbing a knife out of the hands of one of the six men attacking our car, and threatening him with his own weapon. It’s knowing when to wait and when to move. It’s knowing that when the sun melts you, you flow.